ROME — Is a scrap of papyrus suggesting that Jesus had a wife authentic?
Scholars on Wednesday questioned the much-publicized discovery by a Harvard scholar that a 4th century fragment of papyrus provided the first evidence that some early Christians believed Jesus was married.
And experts in the illicit antiquities trade also wondered about the motive of the fragment's anonymous owner, noting that the document's value has likely increased amid the publicity of the still-unproven find.
Karen King, a professor of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School, announced the finding Tuesday at an international congress on Coptic studies in Rome. The text, written in Coptic and probably translated from a 2nd century Greek text, contains a dialogue in which Jesus refers to "my wife," whom he identifies as Mary.
King's paper, and the front-page attention it received in some U.S. newspapers that got advance word about it, was a hot topic of conversation Wednesday at the conference.
Christian tradition has long held that Jesus was unmarried, although there is no reliable historical evidence to support that, King said. Any evidence pointing to whether Jesus was married or had a female disciple could have ripple effects in current debates over the role of women in the church.
Stephen Emmel, a professor of Coptology at the University of Muenster who was on the international advisory panel that reviewed the 2006 discovery of the Gospel of Judas, said the text accurately quotes Jesus as saying "my wife." But he questioned whether the document was authentic.
"There's something about this fragment in its appearance and also in the grammar of the Coptic that strikes me as being not completely convincing somehow," he said in an interview on the sidelines of the conference.
Another participant at the congress, Alin Suciu, a papyrologist at the University of Hamburg, was more blunt.